Mikko Koivu slipped up while answering the first question of his introductory video news conference with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday.
“Here in Minnesota,” Koivu said before quickly correctly himself.
After playing 15 seasons with the Minnesota Wild, including the past 11 as their captain, it’s understandable that phrase is stuck in Koivu’s vernacular. But the 37-year-old center is beginning a new phase of his career and life after signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract with Columbus on Saturday.
The Wild have been the only NHL team Koivu has known since they selected him with the No. 6 pick in the 2001 NHL Draft. But he was left to look for a new team and pondered retirement after general manager Bill Guerin informed him in August that Wild were not going to re-sign him.
Although it took some time to get over the initial shock, Koivu realized he wanted to keep playing and continue his chase for the Stanley Cup, which has eluded him.
“Playing hockey, you want to win,” Koivu said. “I never got a chance to go far in the playoffs. That’s my No. 1 goal as an individual and I think you realize that more and more once you get a little more experience and you see the [other] team’s players having that success as a team. That’s something that drives me right now and that’s the reason why I signed with Columbus.”
Koivu’s situation was nearly identical to that of new Washington Capitals goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist was the face of the New York Rangers for 15 seasons before they bought out the final season of his contract on Sept. 30, making him an unrestricted free agent.
The 38-year-old also needed some time to get used to the idea of pulling on another team’s NHL sweater, but believes he’s found the perfect fit for him with the Capitals, who signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract on Friday. The main draw was the chance to win the Cup with Washington, which has maintained much of the core from its 2018 championship team.
“I think when you start a journey you have to picture it happening first, so that’s what I’m doing right now,” Lundqvist said Friday. “I want to see myself with that Cup and I want to do it in Washington, so I definitely see myself doing it. I think that will be my motivation now going into training and getting prepared for camp and whenever camp starts that will be on my mind.”
Koivu sees a similar opportunity with the Blue Jackets. Columbus gave the Tampa Bay Lightning, the reigning Cup champions, all they could handle in the Eastern Conference First Round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season after sweeping them in the first round in 2018-19. Maybe the Blue Jackets haven’t always been viewed as a Cup contender, but after four straight seasons in the playoffs, Koivu thinks are they are ready to take the next step and believes he can help them do that.
“I think as a player you want to join a team that is hard to play against and I believe that, and they proved that over the last couple years,” Koivu said. “I think that’s obvious.”
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The closest Lundqvist has come to winning the Cup was when he helped the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 before they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games. Koivu never got past the second round with the Wild.
Advancing beyond that was Koivu’s motivation with Minnesota for as long as he can remember. Now, it’s to do it with the Blue Jackets.
“Having a new challenge, I think it’s fresh,” Koivu said. “As a player and an individual, you need that not just in hockey but in life in general, and that can be a good thing. And that’s the way I look at it.”
Koivu left the Wild as their leader in points (709), assists (504) and regular-season games (1,028), and is second in goals (205), behind Marian Gaborik (219). Koivu also played in a Wild-record 59 postseason games, scoring 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists).
Although Koivu’s 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 55 games last season were his fewest since his 21 in 64 games as a rookie in 2005-06, he’s certain he has more to give. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Saturday he envisions Koivu slotting in as the Blue Jackets’ third-line center behind Pierre-Luc Dubois and Max Domi.
Koivu knows that life will be a lot different in Columbus after so many years in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. And he will no longer be the leader and face of his team, but one of many faces.
But after being forced into the change, he’s embracing it.
“I’m sure it will be different, but I see that as a positive as of right now,” Koivu said. “Getting the message from Minnesota that I won’t continue there, that was hard at first, obviously, but once you kind of think about it through, I think you’re looking for the new challenge, new chapter in your life and now I have that opportunity with the Blue Jackets.
“I’m very excited about that and can’t wait to get started there and get to know the players, the team, the city, the fans, all that goes into that. So that’s an exciting time.”